Intellectual Mansions S.W. by Philip Gibbs (1910)
As noted in a recent blog post, visitors to the People’s History Museum will find, within the Voters section of Gallery 1, a wide range of intriguing items on the early 20th century women’s suffrage movement (including some brilliant posters, postcards, banners and much more). The Museum, with whom we are partners on the Voting for Change project, is also currently home to the Savage Ink exhibition (until 13 May 2018), where visitors are led through the history of the satirical cartoon, from the work of its late 18th century innovators through to political art in the present-day press, graphic novels and comics.
As a snapshot of the historical times in which they were created, designed to both amuse and provoke, the images in Savage Ink are a rich, revealing record of modern political perspectives and protest. As the exhibition’s name implies, the humour evident within these images is barbed and frequently dark, although the targets are many and varied.
Political campaigners, including those who sought the vote for women during the 19th and 20th centuries, were frequently the target of visual critique in the form of cartoons and popular illustration. A now well-known poster, A suffragette’s home (c.1910/11), produced by the Campaigning Committee for the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, can be seen in the Voters section of Gallery 1 at PHM. It depicts a working class man arriving home to a thoroughly neglected household, distressed children and exhausted wife. She has, the onlooker is encouraged to believe by a nearby note hanging on the wall, selfishly spent her day campaigning for Votes for Women, instead of tending to her home and family.
Around a century earlier, in 1819 (although it is suggested elsewhere that this particular print may, in fact, date from 1812), Much wanted, a reform among females!!! was produced by artist J L Marks. This illustration, which currently features in Savage Ink, portrays a group of women reformers who had canvassed the public in Blackburn and does so in crudely reductive terms.
Satire could also of course be used very effectively by those who were enthusiastically supportive of, or even just broadly sympathetic to, women’s participation in politics, including where this involved women’s suffrage in the early 20th century. There was certainly no shortage of material to lampoon in the arguments of many of those who opposed votes for women at this time. Intellectual Mansions S.W. (1910) is a book by highly prolific writer Philip Gibbs, who took a close and clearly passionate interest in political and social matters of the day including gender relations and class. In this novel, one of a huge number Gibbs published during a long and largely esteemed career, he manages to craft a story that is both quirkily enjoyable and acutely prescient. An excellent example of effective satire, it will have no doubt engaged (likely even enraged a few) contemporary readers.
The Library now holds a copy of Intellectual Mansions S.W., which has been acquired as part of the Voting for Change project on which we collaborate with PHM. It is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in popular attitudes during this tumultuous period (both politically and socially). Contemporary fiction adds a further cultural dimension to our existing large collection on woman’s suffrage, in that it lends itself particularly well to the creative, in-depth exploration of the burning issues of the day.
A satirical approach, in particular, allows Gibbs playfully to puncture both the pomposity and irrationality of much of popular anti-suffrage discourse, as well as contemporary class stereotypes. In Intellectual Mansions S.W, he does this primarily through one of the main characters, supposedly progressive ‘intellectual’ London resident and successful writer, Mr. Raymond Fraquet, who self-pityingly despairs at his wife Phillida’s passionate involvement in the suffrage movement. In one key passage, the author juxtaposes Fraquet’s comically vain (not to mention decidedly snobbish) objections to his wife’s political campaigning with the type of violent punishment that the reader knows suffrage campaigners to have actually endured at the hands of the authorities:
[Phillida’s] last infamy had been the final touch. After that he could not live with her. For fourteen hours, dressed in the filthy clothes of a charwoman, she has been concealed under the boards of a public hall. In the midst of a speech by a Cabinet Minister she had suddenly appeared before a great audience, in which were many of his own friends, and in that horrible guise, with disordered hair like a street woman the worse for drink, she had denounced the Minister as a liar and a tyrant, and a torturer of women. She had been seized, and hit twice on the head, and thrown down two flights of steps.
While Gibbs clearly savours at various points the opportunity to exaggerate and elaborate that a fictional approach offers, he nevertheless skewers the self-importance and inconsistences of many of the ‘real-life’ anti-suffrage movement’s claims:
But the women had to pay. History tells us that the women paid and that the revenge was taken. They were pelted with any handy thing, and any filthy thing, which could be got quickly by men animated by a high ideal of chivalry.
By taking these arguments to comic extremes in the form of the utterly conceited Fraquet, he very efficiently undermines this type of opposition: ‘Never again could he live with [his wife] after that horrible exhibition of shameless womanhood’. In this way, Intellectual Mansions S.W. packs a significant punch as political commentary, just as it is a largely satisfying, well written novel. Gibbs’s eye for the extreme, sometimes faintly ludicrous nature of the measures (such as descending from ‘holes in the ceiling’) which campaigning women were essentially forced to take is sharp, with his underlying arguments all the more convincing for it:
And ignored as they might be in political manifestoes, [the women] could not be ignored at political meetings, or in the arena of political combat. They were always there with their interruptions and their sudden appearances, and their scornful denunciations, from beneath the platforms, from holes in the ceiling, from undiscovered hiding places.
Perhaps most strikingly, this book reflects Gibbs’s acute awareness of likely developments over the coming years, in relation to both wider class relations and women’s battle for full enfranchisement (which indeed would only come in 1928). Although published before the peak of fervour and controversy surrounding women’s suffrage in Britain, Gibbs’s writing here is remarkably perceptive, especially in terms of a major plot development towards its conclusion (which I will not detail here, for obvious ‘Spoiler Alert’ reasons!). Indeed, while the author expertly navigates what is often grimly serious subject matter with a refreshingly light touch (thus demonstrating his considerable experience as a writer of fiction and journalism), there is a strong sense of impending social upheaval throughout:
The sergeant spoke over his shoulder in an anxious voice: “I advise you ladies to be careful. There’s going to be some trouble.”
As well as reading Intellectual Mansions S.W., visitors to the Library are also able to explore the rest of our extensive related collection, which of course features many other examples of contemporary fiction and satire, including those items obtained in the course of our ongoing Voting for Change project.
- The Working Class Movement Library and the People’s History Museum & Labour History Archive and Study Centre were successful in getting a ‘Collecting Cultures’ grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Voting for Change – 150 Years of Radical Movements, 1819 to 1969, their collaborative project, focuses on the movements and campaigns for the franchise, from the build-up to the Peterloo protest in 1819 through to the lowering of the voting age in 1969.
2. Much wanted a Reform among females!!!, by J L Marks (1819, per British Museum). Further details also available online at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3026532&partId=1